Putin’s nuclear threat: Now the West takes it seriously

Olivier Matthys/AP
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Sept. 30. He has pledged that Ukraine's Western allies would not cede to veiled Russian nuclear threats.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has been making veiled nuclear threats against Ukraine almost since he ordered his troops to invade, seven months ago. But now Western leaders and strategists are taking them seriously.

That’s because Mr. Putin – with his annexation last week of four Ukrainian provinces – has doubled down on his position that the war represents an existential challenge for Russia.

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What if Vladimir Putin’s veiled nuclear threats against Ukraine are not a bluff? Western allies seek a deterrent threat that will not lead to Armageddon.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows for the first use of nuclear weapons only when the existence of the state is in jeopardy. Mr. Putin insisted that the four annexed regions are now “forever” part of Russia, and that he would defend them “by all the means we possess.”

The Pentagon has reportedly begun gaming steps it might take in the event of a nuclear attack on Ukraine, and Washington is understood to have privately warned Moscow to take seriously its public threats of “catastrophic consequences” for Russia if it does detonate a nuclear device.

In the meantime, the U.S. is trying to balance its response to the Russian invasion between Washington’s two main goals – helping Ukraine, and avoiding a broader war between NATO and Russia that would be more likely to lead to a nuclear confrontation.

For NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine amount to one thing – “nuclear blackmailing.”

NATO partners will not bow to such nuke-rattling, the alliance leader said this week, and will not stop supporting Ukraine for fear of a Russian nuclear strike.

Yet as the United States and European powers confront what has rapidly become the most serious nuclear showdown in 60 years, their response has shifted from an almost blasé dismissal of Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats early in the war to planning for a swift and overwhelming response, should Russia actually resort to the previously unthinkable.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

What if Vladimir Putin’s veiled nuclear threats against Ukraine are not a bluff? Western allies seek a deterrent threat that will not lead to Armageddon.

President Putin “is not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons,” President Joe Biden warned on Thursday. “For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use (of a) nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going.”

Whether Mr. Putin would actually move beyond threats to use is unknown, but it is clear that he seeks with his threats to weaken U.S. and European solidarity with Ukraine, much as he has played the energy card, some international analysts say.  

“With these threats Putin is trying to rattle the West’s resolve to support Ukraine, he’s planting seeds of fear,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “But so far the West’s and certainly the U.S. response has been, ‘No, resorting to the nuclear card is not going to work.’”

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden appeared to pointedly meet Mr. Putin’s talk of nuclear weapons with a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which he pledged a new round of military assistance, including more of the advanced armaments that are helping the Ukrainian military put Russia on the defensive. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia's Arctic North on board the nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky in 2005. He has recently stepped up veiled threats to use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine.

Remembering the Cuban crisis

One key reason Washington and other Western capitals are taking Mr. Putin’s threat more seriously: The Russian leader has doubled down on his position that the war in Ukraine, which he launched, represents an existential challenge for Russia and its place as a great global power.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows for first use of nuclear weapons only “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” That gives added meaning to Mr. Putin’s statement on Sept. 30 that the four Ukrainian regions he annexed are now “forever” part of Russia and would be defended like any other Russian territory, “by all the means we possess.”

Moreover, Mr. Putin has long made plain that he sees Russia’s nuclear arsenal – and a credible threat to use it – as a central pillar of his country’s superpower status. 

The Pentagon has begun gaming steps it might take if Russian forces were to use a nuclear device, some official sources say. At the same time, the White House has employed back channels to hint to Moscow the kinds of devastating military ripostes – though nothing nuclear – it might expect if it resorted to using even low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.

Sixty years ago this month, the Cuban missile crisis plunged the world into fear of a nuclear winter, when Washington caught the Soviet Union building nuclear missile launch sites less than 100 miles from the U.S. coastline, and blockaded the island. After 13 tense days, Moscow removed the missiles already in Cuba, and the crisis was defused.

Nuclear arms experts are quick to differentiate the current tensions from 1962, however. For one thing, Russia is not seen to be threatening to use the kind of strategic nuclear weapons that could take out major American cities, but rather the so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons that can be fired from a rocket-launcher or truck bed to devastate a military base or a few city blocks.

Moreover, the U.S. is not threatening to respond in kind to an eventual tactical nuclear attack in Ukraine, thus minimizing the risk of escalation to nuclear Armageddon.    

Last month, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned that “any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia,” and that “the U.S. and our allies will respond decisively.”

“If Putin had the idea that somehow Jake Sullivan was going to ... march into the [president’s office] and say, ‘We’d better stop the West’s support for Ukraine because of this nuclear threat,’ well, that was never going to happen,” Dr. Gvosdev says.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
U.S. President Joe Biden says he takes seriously Russian President Vladimir Putin's veiled threats to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

Balancing acts on both sides

At the same time, the Biden administration has always recognized the risk of Russia’s war in Ukraine evolving into a big-power confrontation – with potential nuclear implications – and has calibrated its response to avoid that outcome, some experts say.

“From the beginning of this war, the administration has been trying to balance their response between two main goals, one being to help the Ukrainians ... and the other being to avoid a broader NATO-Russia war that could lead to some kind of nuclear confrontation,” says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University in California.

“They’ve done a pretty good job at finding that balance,” he says, while cautioning that Mr. Putin is complicating that task by adding a nuclear dimension to his “gambit to create a new geopolitical reality in Europe.”

Mr. Biden has stopped short of delivering to Ukraine the longer-range missile systems that could reach deep into Russia, and this week he cold-shouldered Mr. Zelenskyy’s declaration that Ukraine is already a de facto member of NATO.

Yet despite Mr. Putin’s heightened stridency, Dr. Gvosdev, a Russia scholar, says the Russian leader must perform a balancing act of his own.

“He’s faced with walking a pretty tricky line domestically and internationally,” he says. On the one hand Mr. Putin must satisfy the desire among “hardline Kremlin elites” and a slice of the Moscow social media audience for tough action, and on the other “not provoke a U.S. and NATO response that could turn out badly for him.”

In that light, Dr. Gvosdev says, recent unconfirmed reports of the Russian military moving some nuclear hardware around can be seen as directed at both of Mr. Putin’s key audiences – the Moscow hardliners he wants to assuage, and the West, which he wants to keep guessing.

Using a tactical nuclear bomb, however, would at most temporarily halt Ukraine’s territorial gains, some military analysts say, while it would almost certainly make Russia even more of an international pariah, souring relations even with friends like those in Beijing and New Delhi.

What’s needed now, says Ambassador Pifer, is probably occurring behind the scenes: quiet diplomacy and private communications between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and their Russian counterparts to lay out the harsh consequences of any resort to nuclear weapons.

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